Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Yes—March 20 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

I’ve been lucky enough to see most of the classic prog greats—Rush, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Van der Graaf Generator—but never Yes. When I was in high school they toured Western Canada for 90125, and while I liked that album, it sure wasn’t the Yes of the previous decade, and I snobbishly decided not to go.

I followed Yes casually for the next couple decades, occasionally checking in to little reward. The Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album was a real bummer, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch that Union enterprise. By the latter half of the '90s there was a whole new progressive rock scene to get into and the Yes soap opera just seemed silly and irrelevant. I had Spock’s Beard, the revitalized IQ, and mail-order labels like The Laser’s Edge and Cuneiform Records to keep me busy, not to mention a burgeoning international metal scene that to me represented the true spirit of “progressive”.

But now I’m old and nostalgic, and it seems that the keepers of the Yes legacy are too. When I had the chance to go to their show last week at the Queen E (thanks to the loveable Luke Meat), I did indeed seize it. The lineup of Howe/Squire/White/Downes and newish vocalist Jon Davison looked respectable, and the show’s format of presenting three classic albums in their entirety guaranteed a solid setlist, albeit an predictable one. The three albums in question, The Yes AlbumClose to the Edge, and Going for the One, contain five or six of my favourite songs of all time. I was looking forward to hearing them in a live setting.

“I saw Yes in 1974, and it cost five bucks! And you know who opened for them? THE EAGLES!” You always get these people at the old-time prog shows. I reckon I was the only person in the joint who hadn’t seen them on the Relayer tour. The lights went down at 7:30, quelling the babbling of aging nerds. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite came on the PA; the band’s traditional walk-on music. This was just like the real thing. Hold on, it was the real thing. That gnome/hippy figure was Steve Howe, and there was Chris Squire with requisite Rickenbacker. Geoff Downes stood among three banks of keyboards. They started with "Close to the Edge" and played the rest of the album in order. It was all bang-on, especially Davison whose voice soared, note perfect all the way. Sure he wasn’t their original vocalist, but his performance was a marvellous tribute to Jon Anderson’s melodic talents.

The stage production was Spartan—nothing in the way of a “set” and minimal backline. A screen behind the drum kit presented animated Roger Dean vistas, rainbow-hued butterflies, mysterious figures in yogic poses, and other suitably-Yeslike imagery. As well, the screen introduced each song with a title card (e.g. “Siberian Khatru” Close to the Edge (1972)).

Going for the One was next, with Steve Howe kicking out the jams on pedal steel guitar. He had a good style of shoving the wheeled contraption off stage whenever he was done with it. A roadie would put it back in place when it was time for another go. Davison’s performance on “Turn of the Century” was a highlight of the GftO segment and earned him a standing ovation. “Parallels” sounded creaky in comparison; probably the only instance where I thought the band could have pounded out a song with more authority. For “Awaken” Howe put on an odd-looking headstock-less guitar. Not to be outdone, Squire emerged with a triple-neck bass/guitar contraption. Hope he has a good supply of Robaxacet for this tour! He’s not a poser, our Chris—he did indeed play on all three necks during the course of the song.

After a 20-minute intermission and some words from Howe praising Vancouver for its more European feel compared to America (“cosmopolitan” was the word he used), they embarked on The Yes Album (1971). They slayed it too, especially on Howe’s solo spot, “The Clap”. Seeing him in action live confirmed his status as a guitar god. After the musical jigsaw that is “Perpetual Change” they left the stage briefly before resuming with “Roundabout” for an encore. This started two folks dancing and going nuts in the aisle at the front of the stage. Maybe the song had been their first dance song at their wedding, in which case I wish I'd been invited to that wedding. They were allowed to boogie down until the first chorus, when they were beaten to a pulp by security and tossed out (kidding).

It really was a great night. The only downside was going home and facing the wrath of Mrs. Mule, who’ll probably never forgive me for not bringing her along. Now that this is published, I’ll never speak of this again.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Two

Black Wizard—Young Wisdom (self-released, LP on War on Music)
A deadly distillation of all things hairy, sweaty and rocking, Young Wisdom was so good that we reviewed it twice at Hellbound last year. If it weren’t for the extraordinary debut of a certain other, related band, this would have been the local release of 2013.

Shooting Guns—Brotherhood of the Ram (Pre-Rock)
These Saskatoon proponents of “Pilsner-fuelled mayhem” are flat out one of the coolest bands in Canada. Getting to see them do their thing again at the Cobalt last year was a real treat. I don’t think Brotherhood of the Ram was out at that point, but they did play large chunks of it, I’m pretty sure. Sticking to their instrumental ethic for this six-track riff jamboree is a smart move. Having some guy yell overtop this would only ruin the party. The LP has a distinct vibe on each side, starting with a trio of swirling heavy numbers, each as untamed and expansive as the prairie landscape, then settling down on side two for a couple of more placid tracks (the Shooting Guns sound collides with latter-day Earth to great effect on “Go Blind”) before “No Fans” shuts things down with a final blowout. It’s quite a ride.

Subrosa—More Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore)
Subrosa are a little bit magical. They’re not a heavy metal band, but damn, they’re heavy. They’re bluesy while avoiding of the obvious scales and structures of the genre. Only loss and longing remain. They’re extremely Gothic, but sure as hell not “goth”. Their violin-laced sludge trudge has a stern beauty, sort of a tar-pit-as-reflecting pool effect. I hear them less as a metal band than the offspring of the heavier strain of ‘90s alt-rock. Imagine if PJ Harvey, post-Rid of Me had bought bigger amps after and got really into Melvins, or if Slint had found that interested female vocalist and, again, got really into Melvins. This is a much louder, more confident album than their previous album. at the same time, it’s more brave in its willingness to whisper-sing its most intimate thoughts.

Boards of Canada—Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)
I don’t know from IDM or whatever genre Boards of Canada inhabits. Everything sounds like prog to my ears anyway. Tomorrow’s Harvest, to me, is comfort music. It doesn’t try to “rock” and unlike a lot of the music I listen to, it’s not structured to shock the listener. Spooky and meticulously layered, each of the 17 tracks explores its little cluster of sounds for a tantalizingly brief time before moving on to the next track, the next idea. In lesser hands, this type of music tends to drone on for no reason than wanting to use the word “monolithic” in the press release. The discipline here is admirable, and just as there’s nothing very risky or jarring on Tomorrow’s Harvest, it also fit in with my ‘playing it safe’ ethos for 2013.

Kadavar—Abra Kadavar (Nuclear Blast)

Maybe they’re trying a little too hard, these Kadavar freaks, considering the live-off-the-floor recording, the blown-out vocals, the beards and the aged-looking cover photo. They’re like a new pair of pre-faded jeans. But damn, they fit and they feel good and it’s a classic look, right? Their genius is in avoiding being an obvious homage to any specific band. They weld together a bunch of blues and proto-metal styles to create a retro sound of their own, same as I think Graveyard have done. Stylistically, they draw from more sources than Graveyard, though, colouring songs like “Doomsday Machine” and “Dust” with strokes of arena-rock flash. Guitarist/vocalist Lupus Lindemann often sounds a bit like Klaus Meine; maybe that’s what does it. The production is minimal as possible, with a single guitar hard panned left, bass on the right, vocals straight up the middle. Nailing that perfect take must have been a nail-biting process, but the energy and excitement you can hear on Abra Kadavar was well worth it.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part One

As I said, I wasn't feeling acquisitive or inquisitive during 2013, so I'm doing 20 albums this time out. Here are the first five...

Necromonkey—Necroplex (Exergy Music)
I reviewed the madcap adventures of these Swedish boffins running wild in the analog wonderland of Rothhandle Studio here. Looks like they’ve been beavering away lately, so there’ll be more on Necromonkey here in 2014, mark my words.

Windhand—Soma (Relapse)
I love it when an album creeps up on you after making an underwhelming first impression. Soma started haunting me after the third or fourth listen. My initial thoughts were, “Well, anyone can do that.” That being super-slow, super-downtuned doom with riffs built from a handful of power chords. However, the atmosphere and, most importantly, the songs started to invade my consciousness. With Dorthia Cottrell’s distant voice providing a fragile human element wailing against the massed wattage burning through the mix, Windhand do have something special going on. To me, Soma’s combination of power and intrigue signals they’re on the verge of making a real masterpiece. I found myself wanting them to integrate their acoustic side more with the doom metal within the same song—on Soma, the lovely “Evergreen” stands on its own sandwiched between the heavy epics—but no doubt this would restrict what they could pull off live. There is one track that does pull everything Windhand does all together, and that is “Boleskine.” Half an hour in length, and equally loved and disparaged by various critics, it feels less like a song than a Beckett radio play (with guitar chords in place of dialogue), considering its feeling of dread and hopelessness and eventually an all-consuming anticipation for the end.

Earthless—From the Ages (Tee Pee)
It’s a long-running joke in my weekend basement band: whenever we decide to “just jam,” we have almost exactly 12 minutes worth of ideas and licks before the proceedings come to a sorry end. Earthless don’t have this problem—14 minutes is about the right length for them, and they have no trouble keeping the momentum up. In fact, on the title track of this all-instrumental rockfest, they smash through that time barrier and rock out for a full half hour. Eddie Glass can do incredible things on the guitar. It’s amazing that the rhythm section can keep up with him. It’s sort of a marriage between Robin Trower and electric Miles—it’s all about pushing it, prolonging the ecstatic moment and achieving hypnotic bliss. Earthless do it through Glass’s prolific (to say the least) soloing or the cavalcade of cycling riffs on “Violence of the Red Sea.”

Locrian—Return to Annihilation (Relapse)
Last year’s split with Horseback pointed me towards the new one from Chicago duo Locrian. Return to Annihilation is as bleak as its cover, a landscape scoured by washes of keening guitar, pulsing synths and screamed (and, I feel, expendable) vocals. It’s admirable in its scope and insistence in dragging you along for the ride. The 15-minute title suite is a tripartite wonder, traversing Agalloch-like dark folk, a Mellotron and Moog-dominated Italian horror soundtrack section, and a patient buildup towards a cacophonous finale. Although it’s tough to embrace something so intended to disturb, long passages and sometimes entire tracks are unequivocally enjoyable. I like the album more every time I hear it. Locrian’s alchemy of sounds bristles with invention—nobody else sounded like this in 2013.

Burning Ghats—Something Other Than Yourself
This local hardcore quartet weren’t messing around when they recorded this jarring and grim 12-inch debut. The record spins at 45 RPM; the music churns at a number of velocities, all of them pulverising. Reviewed in full here.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Introduction

2013 was the year I gave up trying to keep up. I couldn’t muster the resources to do it: the time required to listen to everything, the money to acquire what might interest me, the enthusiasm to keep feeding the addiction. I pretty much sat back and monitored what everyone else was yabbering about, sampled a bit of it, and picked and chose a few things from that. Of course, there were a bunch of insta-buy albums from bands I know and trust, but overall my quest for new music became very casual last year.

My biggest concern was really how I should listen to music. This year my devotion to physical formats took a hit because we moved. The process of packing and stacking those bins and bins and bins and bins of CDs was demoralizing. There were a lot of records to deal with too, but doing so didn’t give them the nagging taint of obsolescence that the CDs acquired during the move. Now that we’re unpacked and my guilt over the hundreds of pounds of plastic discs and cases has subsided, I have to admit I still like them, and I do pull them out and listen to them, just as I’ll admit that they’re an absurd burden to store and transport. I'll entertain the idea that I shouldn’t keep choosing them as my main format for listening to music.

[Old-man rant about the return of vinyl deleted]

To start the best-of-2013 list-fest, here are some of the most memorable shows from last year. I can't complain about the quality and quantity of gigs making that sometimes-treacherous hop across the border. The scene in Vancouver is still fantastic, and I thank all the promoters plugging away to keep it strong. Some of the shows (Anathema, Diamond Head/Raven) could have been better attended. It's a bit maddening/saddening to watch a band trying to bring a Euro-style festival show to a half-full theatre. I'm hoping that it doesn't indicate that the scene's reached a saturation point. On the other hand, shows like Red Fang, Goblin and Saxon were absolutely packed, so it's swings and roundabouts in this crazy world of rock.

Favourite Concerts of 2013
1. Nick Cave—April 6, Vogue Theatre / Yob—April 6, Interurban Gallery
2. Neurosis—January 5, Showbox (Seattle)
3. Scott Kelly—March 9, Railway Club
4. Rush—July 26, Rogers Arena
5. Lee Ranaldo and the Dust—December 7, Biltmore
6. Anathema and Alcest—September 28, Rickshaw Theatre
7. Sub Rosa and Eight Bells—April 20, Astoria
8. Red Fang—November 10, Rickshaw Theatre
9. Goblin—October 17, Rickshaw Theatre
10. Kylesa, Blood Ceremony, White Hills, Lazer/Wulf—May 29, Electric Owl
11. Saxon—October 10, The Venue
12. Intronaut, Scale the Summit—June 6, Rickshaw Theatre
13. Shooting Guns—June 23, The Cobalt
14. Baroness—September 4, The Venue
15. Kadavar, Mothership—Sept. 20, Astoria
16. Diamond Head/Raven—October 9, Rickshaw Theatre

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part Five

The fifth and last entry of this protracted series. I've already done my Best of 2013 list, but writing it up and fleshing it out will probably take me another full year again.

Ancestors—In Dreams and Time (Tee Pee)
It was apparent from their previous two albums that Ancestors were working up to something big. In Dreams and Time is definitely it. My god. Stretching across six immense, ever developing songs, it’s no less than an incandescent collision between Meddle and Times of Grace. The Californian quintet sounds utterly in command as they alternately soar and roar, riding on waves of fuzzed-out guitar, regal keyboards, and nuanced vocals. The piano-led “The Last Return” is sombre and ominous, while “On the Wind” features a jam that’d do Crazy Horse proud. The album culminates in the 19-minute “First Light,” a guitar-solo-powered drift across the heavens that saves their most triumphant riff for last. Nothing sounds forced or hurried; everything is delivered with patience, confident that they’re giving the listener the heaviest trip possible.

Woods of Ypres—Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light (Earache)
This is a tough one. Woods 5 slipped out in the pall of David Gold’s sudden, shocking death late in 2011. I couldn’t deal with getting Earache’s authorized online leak—doing so would have felt ghoulish to me; it was too soon. Even after the CD appeared early in 2012, I could barely confront the pallid, orphaned thing. I wasn’t looking forward to hearing a dead man sing to me. Listening to it was not a relief. The songs are obsessed with death, failure, and contemplating one’s legacy, tinged with not quite enough grim humour to dilute the despondence. It doesn’t mess around with trivial issues. Reminiscent of Sentenced and Amorphis, it’s very Scandinavian in its mid-paced, melodic gravity. Relentless catchiness renders the whole thing almost intolerably bittersweet. A dismal epic like “Kiss My Ashes (Goodbye)” comes complete with a chorus perfect for a Wacken Fest singalong. Recorded as a duo, Gold and Joel Violette’s collaboration shows a real spark, especially on the album’s centrepiece, “Silver” (where losing at love equates to losing at life: “When you’re silver, you never come first / when you’re silver, the truth always hurts”). The messages are confused and contradictory at times. Gold’s ruminations on dark nights and bad times feel like they could be unravelled and decoded forever. It’s an album for mourning a major Canadian songwriting talent and for celebrating his last, and some of his best, work.

Astra—The Black Chord (Metal Blade/Rise Above)
This album blazes from start to finish, like a psychedelic meteor shower of blazing Mellotrons, intricate drum fills, and guitar solos. I’m 15 years old again, leafing through an Arthur C. Clarke paperback and listening to Fragile when “Heart of the Sunrise” comes on, flipping the switch that sends me in pursuit of similarly powerful, majestic music to this day. The Weirding, Astra’s first album, had a couple essential tracks and a pleasing retro sound, but The Black Chord outdoes it in material, production and overall energy. The music reaches an ecstatic state during the opening instrumental “Cocoon” and pretty much stays there for the rest of the record. As with the Ancestors album, the vocals are just as well executed as the music. Note the stunning buildup of melodies and sections leading from the verse to the chorus of the title track—that’s not a case of just throwing in some words because they had to be there; that’s some inspired songsmithery. Feel free to argue that contemporary music can’t be “progressive” if it sounds like something Eddie Offord recorded in 1972. To my ears, Astra have the best tones and the best tunes.

Horseback—Half Blood (Relapse)
I like that Horseback doesn’t do just one thing on Half Blood, or across its discography in general. The hypnotic, charred grooves on Half Blood constitute the user-friendly side of Horseback’s sound. Not to discount the other stuff that Jenks Miller puts out, because I do find even his most “bitter pill” material fascinating and inspiring, but this is my favourite Horseback style—Part Rust Never Sleeps, part Neu!, part Spiderland and part…I don’t know, The Shadowthrone. The conciseness and flow of this album reflects a discipline that is rare amongst others who work in this experimental terrain, making it a downright enjoyable experience. I reviewed it for Hellbound earlier this year.

Rush—Clockwork Angels (Anthem)
I decided not to assign numbered rankings to my list this time, but I have no problem telling you that Clockwork Angels is my number one album of 2012. After years of fairly pedestrian albums (including a couple that I didn’t bother to buy), this Rush fan needed a jolt to reconnect with his first major musical obsession. Rush just seemed ordinary in their advanced years; another band who had lost their way. The Beyond the Lighted Stage documentary provided a spark, but Clockwork Angels lit the flame. I was back on their side again. Had 2012 Rush changed, or had I changed? I think co-producer Nick Raskulinecz has helped them rediscover their innate “Rushness” and pushed them to write more interesting material. The result was Rush’s first true concept album (I’ve never counted 2112 as a concept LP) with a nearly flawless selection of well-sequenced songs. What I’ll remember most about Clockwork Angels was the excitement of listening to the album for the first few times. The experience matched almost exactly how I used to hear new Rush albums when I was younger—that feeling of discovery and enjoyable disorientation, the sense that I was being issued a challenge; that unravelling the twists and transitions, lyrics, riffs and drum fills would be the reward, and that there was never any danger that familiarity would lead to boredom. Writing this in late 2013, I still haven’t grown tired of Clockwork Angels.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Burning Ghats—Something Other Than Yourself (self-released)

I'd like to think the title is aimed at the oblivious majority—the people who never look up, lost in their handheld pseudo-realities. Burning Ghats are all about confrontation. If they don’t want to destroy the passer-by, they definitely want to give him/her a good wake-up slap. This Vancouver hardcore/metal/grind quartet have pinned me against the back wall many times with their incredible live show. Afterwards, I’m left with thoughts along the lines of “What the hell just hit me?” rather than “hmm, the tempo change in the second song was kind of cool” or other such musical musings. With a 7-inch already to their name, this EP-length 12-inch (mine's on gruesome grey vinyl) has now arrived. The record provokes the same gut reaction that their gigs do, but it's allowed me to appreciate the band on a new, deeper level. The recording is punishing, the songs are cathartic and harrowing. Recorded at The Hive with Jesse Gander and mastered by Brad Boatright at Audiosiege, they certainly worked with the right people. The ten tracks vary in length and tempo, but not in intensity. The tense, drum-led trudge of “Cold People” sets a forbidding mood before “Hexes” blows it all apart with blasting, double-kicked fury. There’s little time to breathe between the relentless series of tracks that follow. “Grief Ritual” blasts by in 21 seconds. “Carry the Head” shudders and howls with pure horror. “Gold Sores” oozes forth over six minutes, and closes the album with sheets of ominous, macabre sound via guest contributors Night Mother. As a purely indie release, Something Other Than Yourself stands impressively on its own, although fans of Baptists and the rest of Southern Lord’s hardcore roster need to hear this now.

Burning Ghats' record release show is Friday, November 22 at the Astoria in Vancouver.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part Four

Part four of five...

Diagonal—The Second Mechanism (Metal Blade/Rise Above)
The Second Mechanism recasts Diagonal as an almost entirely instrumental act that hammers away with the alacrity of Hatfield and the North or some berserk incarnation of Caravan. I loved their first album, but this is a much more confident effort. The five songs are muscular and rhythmically involved, with a bit of jazz that gives Diagonal their own, uh, angle in the old progressive game. Guitar and sax lead the way, often in unison, and the supple, surefooted rhythm section drives the machine along, aided by brilliantly earthy, no-BS recording. Compared to Änglagård, it's rather sparse—more of a live "blow session" than a studio-based audio puzzle. It really does sound like a shit-hot Peel Session. Hats off to whoever engineered this, sure, but the biggest credit must be given to a band that has their material down cold. Man, these guys can play.

Änglagård—Viljans Oga
Änglagård's long-awaited comeback is an onslaught of sophisticated progressive rock. Each of its four tracks is an intense workout, featuring themes that emerge, repeat, then fly apart in a thousand different directions. With guitars, bass, drums, mellotron and flute all intertwined, it's an orgiastic sonic tangle that almost defies easy consumption. Yet the sounds are so natural and inviting that you dive in without question. The only boner killer is the circusy passages in "Langtans Klocka"; otherwise this is dazzling from the start to finish. As someone who craves such music, I'd never complain that it's too much to take in; however, the process of making Viljans Oga evidently took its toll on the band, which started shedding members as the album neared completion.

Janel & Anthony—Where Is Home? (Cuneiform)
I reviewed this elegant and inventive guitar/cello collaboration here. I'm looking forward to hearing what they get up to next.

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell—Don't Hear It...Fear It! (Metal Blade/Rise Above)
ASCS blast us back to 1974 with this burly blast of power trio rock, all flares, bomber jackets and sideburns. Perfect music for bombing up the M1 in one of these. Never mind the image, though—they deliver a well-worn musical style with power, grit, and not a little genius. Imagine Budgie stripped of the pastoral interludes and you've got the Shovell pretty much. Not that they don't have their eccentricities—there's that crazed-looking falcon (?) mascot of theirs and a bunch of songs that even at their most rockin' can still swing and turn down some interesting back alleys. "Devil's Island" and "Red Admiral Black Sunrise" are my kind of rock songs—speeding up, slowing down, getting loose, getting tight, and all built on a deep foundation of riff. And on "Scratchin' and Sniffin'" they've got the working stiff's anthem of the year. Put it on and I'll get the next round in.

Dysrhythmia—Test of Submission (Profound Lore)
This is Dysrhythmia's fiercest outing yet, the trio growing less and less polite as they develop and disperse their genius amongst other projects (Zevious, Krallice, Gorguts, etc.). I may praise a lot of "my" music for its retro authenticity, but there's nothing old-fashioned within Dysrhythmia's particular din. I can't trace anything further back than the early '90s in their approach. There are no solos or anything very groovy. If it resembles good ol' rock music at all, it does so for only a few seconds before lurching into something else. On the other hand, their songs are tight, especially by today's slovenly standards. Strong themes with logical linking passages let you draw a thread through each adrenalized track. I found that seeing them live and witnessing the visceral flair and concentration with which they perform this music is an essential to appreciating Dysrhthmia. They really are one of the finest bands pounding it out on the road today.